Welcome to #backlist, where lost classics are remembered.
We're collecting your book recommendations (below), and sharing one each week. The parameters are easy: 1) no books originally published after 2000 (republished is fine), 2) fiction, nonfiction, poetry, 3) have a great reason for it. Posts will be taken anonymously if requested.
Our picks (most recent featured first):
The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
by Janet Malcolm
In classic Janet Malcolm fashion, this book tells a compelling story of real life characters, while questioning the very premise of nonfiction, and any functioning search for truth. While fans of Sylvia Plath will find The Silent Woman especially potent, the book will resonate with anyone who's wondered at the events that hold up a book of nonfiction, and how accurately the tent of words betrays what lies underneath.
The Street of Crocodiles
by Bruno Schulz
This collection of short stories was originally published in 1934, and recommended to us by Karolina Fedyk, who said: "This striking debut draws the reader into an oneiric, feverish world of a small town in Eastern Poland. And I'm not calling it a world lightly - the labyrinthine settlement is a home for miracle-makers, mad scientists, merchants of wonders and godlike figures. By dancing on the boundary between dream and reality, Schulz creates a mythology that is deeply personal and universal at once."
The Country of the Pointed Firs
by Sarah Orne Jewett
This "short story sequence" was published in 1896 and called "a beautiful little quantum achievement" by Henry James. Sebastian Alberdi, who recommended by the book, said it "demonstrates the prose as rich as poetry can be found in narrative stories. The unnamed character through which we see the world introduces the reader to a number of characters that can never fully be figured out but only experienced. As for myself, I'm still wondering if Mrs. Todd was a witch two years after reading the novel for the first time."
The Ice Palace
by Tarjel Vesaas
This Norwegian classic was recommended by Alice Harman, who said, "In the many times that I have recommended this novel, I've never felt I've quite got across the feeling it creates in me as I read it. It is the story of two new young friends, one of whom inexplicably disappears, and it's almost painfully beautiful and spare. The writing is simple and mesmerising, and as the very believable story goes on it seems to soar up beyond itself and leave you grasping at wisps of something so great and subtle that you can feel its presence but can't look at it directly or describe what it is at all."
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
by Marshall McLuhan
Our first nonfiction recommendation comes from Meghan Arlen, a pioneering book asking readers to consider the medium itself, and not just the content it carries. Meghan said the study has "the lofty goal of not simply expressing ideas, but producing new modes of perception in the reader. He was writing for the society he saw coming (ours, and that of our future); not for a literate society but a post-literate society."
by Samuel R. Delany
Originally published in 1975 by Bantam Books, this book details a fictional city in the Midwest, isolated from the rest of the world by catastrophe. It comes on the recommendation of Simon Collinson, who called it a "breathtaking feat of the imagination. Often undeservedly pigeonholed as sci-fi/erotica/post-apocalyptic fiction, it's much more than the sum of its parts."
It Can't Happen Here
by Sinclair Lewis
In honor of the Iowa caucus. Originally published in 1935 by Doubleday (and then continually, including a Signet version in 2014), this book was recommended to us (by Amanda Mecke) because it "predicts Trump". It's the tale of a populist campaign that wins the hearts and minds of the American people by promising drastic economic and social reforms, as well as a return to patriotism and traditional values.
Cities of Salt
by Abdel Rahman Munif, translated by Peter Theroux
When this novel was published in Beirut in 1984, it was immediately recognized for its power, though it took five years to make it to English (published by Vintage in 1989). Robert Wechsler, who recommended the book to us, said that its greatness is "based largely on what isn't there, such as sense of time, protagonists, women, plot, and voice. The reason is that the society being pictured – Saudi society at the dawn of American oil exploration – apparently had little sense of time, was very communal, left women to themselves, changed very slowly...and would not recognize the concept of voice."
by Ann Petry
This novel, published in 1946 (and republished in 1998 by Mariner Books), is chosen in celebration of David Bowie, who placed it on his 100 must-read book list. The story follows Lutie Johnson, an African-American woman living in Harlem, and a full believer of the American dream. Petry puts the very idea on trial, and produces work of heartbreaking genius and verisimilitude.
by William H. Gass
Gass's opus was published in 1995 by Knopf. Christopher Iacono, who recommended The Tunnel, said even though it "was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, people are split on whether this book should be considered a classic. I say it should be. Sure, this sprawling work is messy, but it will haunt you long after you've read it."
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
by Alan Sillitoe
This short story collection was originally published in 1959, and then again by Vintage in 2010. Roger Lathbury, who recommended the book to us, said: "The alienation of the main character is poignant, and his passive-aggressive act of defiance is a perfect comeuppance. Sillitoe's imitation of voice is bracing, humorous and winning." It was later adapted into a film of the same name.